Reform rabbis debate virtues of a veggie diet

Richard Levy remembers well a conversation he had with a fellow student in his first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The two rabbis-to-be were discussing Jewish dietary restrictions, and felt that Reform Jews should eat pork on principle.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rabbinate: By the end of that year, Levy stopped eating pork. Then, he stopped mixing milk and meat. And eventually he adopted Judaism's dietary restrictions one by one, until he found himself keeping kosher in his home.

"It's not that I was making decisions," he said. "I was being called to act."

The Los Angeles-based rabbi recalled this story during a panel discussion at the annual gathering last month in Monterey of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The topic: where the Reform movement should go in terms of its dietary restrictions.

But what made this discussion unusual was, rather than adopting recommendations that Reform events and conferences be kosher, the rabbis on the panel were mostly advocating that the movement encourage vegetarianism.

A resolution suggesting that vegetarianism is a Jewish value, encouraging Jewish families to have vegetarian meals at their celebratory events and calling upon the CCAR and Union of American Hebrew Congregations as well as Reform synagogues to reduce the amount of meat at their functions was scheduled to be voted upon. However, due to lack of time it was tabled for further discussion.

"Being Jewish reaches beyond the synagogue, " Levy explained. "What we eat is a religious question because the Torah makes it one."

Keeping kosher brings God into everyday life — in the supermarket, in the kitchen and in the home, he said.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation Mkor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., took it a step further. Schwartz, who has been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, is the author of the resolution. Following Levy, he remarked that talking about food is not easy.

"We eat three times a day; it's an important part of our life," he said. "People are defensive and edgy about food because it's a lifestyle issue."

And while the issue of vegetarianism is hotly debated in the environmental community, even there, he said, it is not too strongly pushed, because environmentalists don't want to lose members over it.

His resolution does not call on the movement to be vegetarian — "It wouldn't get very far if it did," said Schwartz, who admitted that even as written, its passage by the CCAR is a long shot.

But he said promoting a vegetarian diet could be considered a Jewish value because of Judaism's prohibitions "against unnecessarily destroying resources and reverence for life."

Rabbi Everett Gendler of Great Barrington, Mass. posed the question, "What is the most appropriate way to relate in harmony to our fellow creatures?"

Gendler cited many reasons why vegetarianism should be considered, including:

*Chickens raised specifically for farming must be declawed and "debeaked" so they don't poke at each other.

*Sixteen pounds of grain are needed for one pound of beef, and three pounds of grain are needed for one pound of chicken — the excess grain could be used to feed hungry humans.

*Chicken feed lots pollute surrounding groundwater, and chicken farms create problems of waste disposal.

*Working conditions are poor for the humans that must work in these places.

It goes beyond dietary issues, said Gendler: "We still have a social responsibility. Our soul cannot rest in harmonious repose without addressing all of these issues."

Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., the outgoing president of the CCAR, has made wellness a key issue during his tenure. A vegetarian diet should be considered for the benefits to one's health, he said.

"We're the only creatures who can think self-consciously about what we do. Doesn't it make sense for us to exercise discipline in this?"

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."